The Unknown Citizen

I thought of this poem when I was moaning the other day about the widespread use of the term “Citizen Science” to describe, e.g., the admirable activities of the Zooniverse. One aspect of their work, planethunters, employs enthusiastic amateurs volunteers from the general public to search for signs of exoplanets, for example, with a notable success during the recent series BBC Stargazing Live.

The problem I have with using the term “Citizen Science” is that it logically excludes those of us who happen to be professional scientists; we are citizens too! At least I hope we are…

Not that I’m pedantic or anything.

I like the word amateur which is derived from the latin verb amare (“to love”) and hence properly means someone who does a task out of love, rather than for money. I’d agree, though, that this has acquired negative connotations of amateurishness (i.e. “unprofessional”) so is probably unsuitable for modern use. But what other word would be better? I just had a look at my thesaurus and it suggests, e.g. “votary”, “layperson” and even “groupie” although I don’t think the latter will catch on!

Anyway, as you will see,  none of this has really got anything to do with the poem, which I’m just posting because the word “Citizen” made me remember it. Apologies for the small font size, but I wanted to ensure that the line breaks didn’t get messed up.

(To JS/07/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

by W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

14 Responses to “The Unknown Citizen”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Amusing that both ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ can be used as compliment or insult.

  2. Woken Postdoc Says:

    “Astrophiles” are people who admire astronomy and astronomical objects. Is this term good enough to suit the “citizen science” contributors who aren’t institutionalised and aren’t formally trained to doctoral level?

    For the other category: I’d avoid saying “professional astronomer”, since “professional” makes it sound like a mere job. Mercenary. Practical. Transactional. For many of us, astrophysics is not work but a true vocation. A lifelong individual calling. The most essential part of one’s identity. We do not belong anywhere other than in university. We continue agonising over research problems as long as we’re conscious. The hardest problems are the most attractive. Perhaps we should be called “vocationals”?

    I believe there are “professionals” in our midst, who gladly stop thinking about science after 5pm. Perhaps they chose their degrees by accident, and drifted into lectureships thanks to connections and fussy obedience to procedure? They express the minimal expected enthusiasm (“professionally”) until exempted by childbirth, vacations (the maximum number) or retirement (soon as they can manage). They play the managerial games, tick all the boxes and reap the security of easy, dull, mass-produced papers.

    I often wish that university departments could be purged of “professionals” (and administrators!) and left peacefully in the hands of ordained vocationals and astrophile laymen. Does there exist a psychometric test that would achieve this?

    • Albert Zijlstra Says:

      I would take issue with taking time off for child birth being equated with un-astrophile (unprofessional?) attitude. People (mainly women) who balance careers with having and raising children have to make hard choices and deserve rather more respect than you give them.

      It is great fun to be able to turn your hobby into your work. Still, if you do, you should pick another hobby.

  3. Chris North Says:

    I have never met an amateur astronomer who objects to being called an amateur. But it should be remembered that amateur astronomers sometimes collaborate with professionals, particularly in observations of planets – the network of amateurs around the world can maintain watch almost 24/7 much more cheaply than professional telescopes.

    In fact, these amateurs often do not want to become professional, perhaps because that would take the fun out of their hobby. This means that their images are rarely calibratable, though in terms of keeping context this is still useful. I know that the Juno mission to Jupiter is hoping to use amateurs to keep track of the changing conditions on the whole planet. Juno’s instruments will be able to get very detailed observations over a small area.

    In response to a few points.

    Peter: I disagree that “citizen science” excludes professionals – there is nothing stopping you from cliassifying light curves on planethunters. I have, however, heard the Zooniverse team report that non-professional astronomers are better at some tasks than professionals, as the latter often impose additional conditions or knowledge that are beyond the scope of the question being asked (e.g. this galaxy is red therefore it must be elliptical, which would bias the GalaxyZoo results for example).

    Woken Postdoc: I also take objection to some of your assumptions about what a scientist should do, particularly when it comes to (implicitly) criticising people for taking time off for their children. Of course, you are fully entitled to dedicate yourself to work, but I don’t think it should be part of the job. While I love astronomy and science in general, and can’t really imagine myself doing anything different, I have a life outside of the University that is just as important (if not more so) as my life at work. Don’t get me wrong: I often work long hours, and also at weekends, but one of the advantages of the job is that there is some flexibility. Many argue that the flexibility comes at a price – which is why we earn less (at least at postdoc level) than most people doing similar jobs in industry (R&D). I think the culture that you describe: working all hours, not taking holidays, and not taking time out to spend time with our children is bad news for those of us who are trying to maintain a work-life balance. I would say the ideal situation is somewhere between what you call a “mercenary scientist” and what your describe as “vocationals”. If you consider me to be a less dedicated scientist then you are of course entitled to your opinion.

    • telescoper Says:


      My point was a logical one. If one only becomes a “citizen scientist” by doing things like the Zooniverse then those who are scientists but don’t do such things must logically not be citizens.

      I think you’re out-pedanted.


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